Hundreds left homeless after E. Ky. flooding

dhjalmarson@herald-leader.com
bestep@herald-leader.com,
May 12, 2009 

PIKEVILLE — "It's just sad," said Johns Creek Elementary School Principal Kenneth Adkins, as he surveyed a dance studio, music rooms and science labs full of mud and damaged desks, books and equipment. "It's really discouraging."

After flash flooding and mudslides threw Eastern Kentucky into turmoil over the weekend, Pike County schools were closed Monday and Tuesday, and Adkins wasn't sure when they would be able to finish 13 days of school and a week's worth of testing for some students.

The story was similar across 15 Eastern Kentucky counties hit by the weekend's storms.

"We're just devastated," said Breathitt County Judge-Executive Jason Richardson.

Richardson said flooding destroyed the homes of 300 to 400 people. That number might go up because there were still roads blocked in the county, he said.

At midday, about 2,000 homes remained without power, Richardson said. There was a concern that some people on oxygen or with other health conditions hadn't had electricity since Saturday. Crews were working Monday to clear roads and restore power.

More than 21,000 people were without clean water, Gov. Steve Beshear's office said.

Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said they planned on Tuesday to tour areas of Central Kentucky damaged by a tornado and the flood-damaged areas of Eastern Kentucky.

Beshear said in a statement that he had given information about storm damage to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, on Monday.

Beshear told Napolitano that officials were still trying to assess damages, but that he expected to request a federal disaster declaration soon, he said in a news release.

Such a declaration would allow the state and local governments to qualify for reimbursement of money they've spent dealing with the flooding and tornado damage.

Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford said Monday that he was "confident" that his county would qualify for disaster assistance.

His office estimated that at least 1,700 homes had water or mud damage, that 7,000 customers still were without water Monday morning and that road repairs would cost millions.

Pike County was distributing bottled water and cleaning kits and giving tetanus shots all day. But officials ran out of supplies as fast as they arrived.

The story was similar in Floyd County, where Emergency Director Jim Caldwell said damage was "extensive" — both private and public — though assessments wouldn't be done until at least Thursday, he said.

"We're fortunate in Eastern Kentucky," Caldwell said, to have a sense of community and be able to pull together in times of crisis. He said few were using shelters to sleep in because family or neighbors took in many people.

Too many close calls

No one in Eastern Kentucky was killed by the floods, officials said, but there were cuts, scrapes and bruises as high water pushed homes off foundations.

And there were many close calls, officials said.

Members of one family had to stand on a couch with their heads out the window in order to stay above the water as it ran through their trailer, which had been pushed against a tree, Richardson, of Breathitt County, said.

In Pike County, Johns Creek volunteer firefighters waterlogged a fire engine trying to get a 4-year-old out of a mobile home before it floated away, said firefighter Bill Childers.

The fire station itself lost equipment, such as oxygen tanks, pumps and a propane tank that were washed out of the building by the force of the water Saturday morning, Childers said.

In Owsley County, emergency workers pulled a man from his floating mobile home early Saturday just before it was swept into swifter water that might have made rescue impossible, said Judge-Executive Cale Turner.

"Lord, this is the worst disaster to happen in Owsley County in my lifetime," said Turner, who is 62. "These creeks, they turned into rivers."

Turner said high water destroyed about 40 mobile homes and damaged other homes, while mudslides destroyed five homes.

Caught by surprise

Richardson, the Breathitt County judge-executive, said the flash flood hit there about 4:30 a.m. Saturday, after many people had gone to bed.

"It caught a lot of people by surprise" when a downpour caused creeks to gush out of their banks, Richardson said. "People didn't have time to get nothing out."

In one spot, the flood left nine mobile homes piled up against a tree, Richardson said.

Richardson said he hoped the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be able to provide trailers for local residents to live in.

The Red Cross was operating three shelters in the county for people left homeless by the flood, he said.

Some people were cut off from the rest of the county by flooding in the Confluence area, at the junction of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River and Buckhorn Lake.

Water backs up in the area when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds water in the lake to ease flooding downstream, Couch said.

Couch was using a boat Monday to ferry people across so they could get to school, work and medical appointments.

In Knott and Lee counties, the main damage was to roads, bridges and culverts washed out by floodwaters. Other roads were blocked by mudslides.

More rain could be on the way to Eastern Kentucky this week, but it is not expected to cause further flooding, said David Stamper, observation program leader at the National Weather Service in Jackson.

Stamper said there is a 40 to 50 percent chance of showers or thunderstorms beginning Wednesday and continuing through the rest of the week.

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